Southern Utah prominent in nation’s largest synthetic drug bust

ST. GEORGE, Utah – Southern Utah was the focal point Wednesday for the largest synthetic drug takedown in history, and FOX 13 News was there as federal agents raided homes, made arrests and seized assets.

The DEA called it Project Synergy, and it was a six-month sting operation in cooperation with the IRS targeting the manufacture and distribution of spice, which is a synthetic drug.

IRS officials said their job is to “follow the money,” and in this case millions of dollars in revenues being generated by the close-knit operation were passing through St. George.  About 150 people were arrested across 35 states Wednesday.

Frank Smith, DEA Utah, said it was a large-scale investigation.

“Today, here in Utah was the arrest aspect of an investigation that’s been going on for several years, an international case in scope,” he said.

Smith said the raw materials to make the spice were smuggled in from overseas and sent to sites scattered across the country. One of the largest of those receiving sites was a warehouse in Hurricane.

“A large majority of the spice that was coming in from China, was manufactured here and then pushed out to 15 states, we were a distribution point,” Smith said.

The finished product was allegedly packaged and sold in retail stores and online under names like “Gods of Spice” and “Blue Heaven.” The complaint alleges the Utah co-conspirators distributed about 2,652 pounds of spice since April of 2011.

Those in the business, like Brian Merrill, were allegedly making millions of dollars. But Paul Camacho, IRS Nevada, said that money is what brought authorities to the suspects’ doors.

“This is all about the money, and it’s about relentlessly following the money so crime doesn’t pay and that’s what we do,” he said.

Court documents allege that six of the main suspects targeted by the operation deposited more than $11 million in various bank accounts between April 2011 and March 2013. They allegedly used the funds to buy homes, cars and other properties.

Smith said targeting the money makes such operations wither.

“By seizing the money, seizing the assets, not only does it decimate the group, but it allows us to remove their ability to operate,” he said.

Authorities said the suspects chose to run operations from St. George because they believed it would be easy to hide in plain sight and keep a low profile in the community.

The complaint charges 14 people. Several charged were in the St. George area: 27-year-old Brian Merrill, 37-year-old Joshua Davis, 33-year-old Buck Andersen, 42-year-old Joseph Givogre, 58-year-old Gary Jolley, 31-year-old Alicia Brandom, 40-year-old Curtis McOsker, 34-year-old Malin Pavelka, 22-year-old Jennifer Barlow and 61-year-old Richard Lewis.

Other suspects in Salt Lake City were also charged: 32-year-old David Flores, 27-year-old James Hardwick, David Carter (age unknown) and 36-year-old Becky Young.

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